At the end of last year’s fall race season, I was not in a great place. I’d worked hard to train for the Route 66 Marathon’s half marathon race, hoping to substantially improve my time. I was on my way to doing that, but an illness two weeks before the race left residual junk in my lungs that made it a fight just to shave 30 seconds off my previous year’s effort.
After that, my head was not in a good place when it came to running. I’d drive by places where my long runs would go and think to myself, “Glad I’m not doing that anymore.” Months passed by and still no itch to run more than a few miles at a time. Between that and a bout of plantar fasciitis in the spring, I was wondering if maybe this was the year I’d sit out of all fall races and do something else.
But around that time, a friend of mine from Colorado started asking questions about good races in the Tulsa area. After a few online chats, he decided he was going to run the Route 66 half and wondered if he could couch surf at my place.
Man, I could hardly host a guy from out-of-town for a race and not at least try to get ready for it myself. So once again, as August drew to a close, I drew up a plan and got to work on half marathon No. 7.
I used the same plan as last year, but with a few tweaks. First, I took my rest day when the plan said so: on Thursdays. Weird, but yeah. And it worked. I’d ride a bike for a specific amount of time on Sundays, run a short route on Mondays, a medium-length run on Tuesdays and then do speed work (either 400-meter intervals or 3-mile negative split runs) on Wednesdays. But the time that was all done, the Thursday break was a blessing. I’d chill at the house or go for a short hike in the woods. I looked forward to those Thursdays.
Fridays would include a shorter route, and then Saturdays would be the weekly long run.
I continued to lift weights, but backed off considerably from years past. I did three full-body workouts a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday), and no lift lasted longer than 30 minutes. I knew I’d lose some strength, but that happens every time I jack up the miles anyway.
The plan itself was a modified version of the Hal Higdon Intermediate 1 half marathon program. You can check it out here.
To be frank, August and September sucked. It wasn’t blast-furnace hot, but still hot enough and unusually humid. Heat indexes were regularly over 100 degrees, and those mid-length to long run days were brutal. It was a major downer to slog along at slow paces and see very little improvement.
October started getting better, and the last Saturday or the month is the day of the annual Tulsa Run. It’s a great tune-up race for Route 66, which is held on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I feared this would be my slowest 15K (based on long run times), but in fact, it was surprisingly better than expected. Nowhere near a PR, but not too bad.
And then, the switch got flipped. Every training run after that race saw better times, stronger running and a general feeling that my conditioning was coming around. It was the same last year (I peaked at the Tulsa Run last year, running my second-fastest 15K before that cold bug got me), so my hope is that my fitness arc would peak on race day Nov. 18. And hope no one would get me sick before then.
Weather is always a key variable at Route 66. November in Oklahoma can hit you with 70- to 80-degree days. It can also hit you with 18-degree days. Rain, snow and ice — or bright sunshine — are all possible. What we got were temps in the lower 30s, a little drizzle and a stiff north wind. It was the kind of cold that goes right through you, but not the worst I’ve seen on race day and totally fine once you get moving.
The course was changed slightly, too. Construction at a new park forced race organizers to reroute a portion of the course through a neighborhood that included a long, low-grade climb that can wear you out. Now that the park is open, the course went back to Riverside Drive, a long, flat stretch between Mile 7 and Mile 10 that’s a welcome relief after facing a hilly section from Mile 2 through 6.
If I were to give advice to anyone running this race, I’d tell them to not blow yourself out running that early stretch. The Maple Ridge neighborhood is scenic and interesting, but it’s full of hills. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up gassed by the time you get to Woodward Park 5 miles in. Not good when you’re not even half done (and if you’re doing the full and feel bad at this point, good luck to ya. It’s gonna be a long day).
Last year, I knew 3 miles in I was in trouble. This time, I took it in stride. It was tough once again, but I was careful to breathe deep on the downhills and slow my heart rate down before the next incline showed up.
Once you get through Mile 6, the course mellows considerably. Last year, I hoped to recover here, but never did. This year I felt great cruising through Brookside, then getting ready to make the northward turn back toward downtown.
But boy, did we get a fun surprise making that northbound turn: a biting wind right in our faces. The trees in the neighborhood shielded us for those first six miles, as did our southbound trip through Brookside. But now we got a good 4 miles of running into the teeth of it.
Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me that much. The miles ticked by, and then we took a quick out-and-back on the Southwest Boulevard bridge before going back into downtown.
For the half marathoners, this is the crux of the race. You get two good-sized hills back-to-back as you gain elevation into downtown (Tulsa’s central business district is on top of a long ridge overlooking the Arkansas River), and this is the place that always bites me. It did again this time. I was gassed, slowed for a brief walk break, then got going again. One of these days I’m going to blast all the hills. Just not this time.
At the top of that second hill is a sweet, blessed, oh-so-needed downhill pitch that goes for about seven blocks. It’s here where the full-marathoners turn east to start their second loop while the rest of us head into the Tulsa Arts District toward the finish line. It’s here I always ask myself if I regret not doing the full. So far, four straight years of “nope.”
Earlier in the race, I was just behind the 2:10 pacer, but I consciously decided not to make a thing of it. “Just run your race,” I told myself. If I saw her close to the end of the race, I’d catch her with a final sprint to the end. If not, no biggie.
Yeah, I was not anywhere close enough for that. So I just cruised into the Arts District, rounded the corner and sprinted the last three blocks toward the end.
Checking the clock as I ran in, I knew I’d run faster than I had the previous year. And I was right: 2:13:41, just shy of 50 seconds better than a year ago. No PR (I still need to trim 2 minutes off that time to get there), and I’m far from my gold-medal goal of breaking 2 hours. But my thinking is I was faster than the previous year, that’s a success, even if just a modest one.
I’d say I’m satisfied, overall. Had I not let my conditioning slide over the summer, I could have done much better. But the training program worked. This is now three years in a row that I’ve been faster. Not a bad thing to get faster as I get older.
There was also something else that worked for me. During that first month, I was griping to myself that I wasn’t as mentally tough as I used to me. It became too easy to bag it. Sure, I’d get all the miles as prescribed. But in terms of performance, pretty meh.
To combat this, I’d play mental games. I’d say “Go this far before you slow down” or “see if you can skip that water break coming up and push through to the next one.” Little things that were a tiny bit harder than what I did the week before, or the day before.
That helped me on race day. I got out of the aid stations much faster than in past years, and even though my 10K and 10-mile splits were slower than last year, the final 3.1 miles to the finish was considerably faster.
But here’s the best part: Unlike last year, I don’t hate the idea of going for 60- to 90-minute runs. I don’t feel the need to back off my training. I look forward to upcoming races. Mentally, I’m in a much better place.
It’ll take a lot (keeping my base, trimming some weight) to get my sub-2 hour goal — shaving a full minute per mile from my current pace. But it seems doable with time, effort and planning. In late 2017, such thoughts were far from me.
Now I’m looking forward to more weight training, but also getting in “mountain shape.” I want to show up in the Rockies in great shape and not suffer at altitude. When next fall rolls around, maybe my base will be strong enough that I can blow past this year’s time, crush my PR and maybe even crack that 2-hour mark. And then see what happens from there.